Fresh Saudi Arrests Illustrate Evolving Jihadist Threat
A Saudi interior ministry spokesman said on April 24 that a recently arrested 23-year-old Saudi man, Yazied Muhammad Abdul Rahman Abu Nayan, had confessed to taking part in the killing of two policemen on behalf of the Islamic State (Saudi Press Agency, April 24). The policemen were shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in an eastern part of the capital Riyadh (al-Jazeera, April 24). The government has offered a 1 million riyal ($267,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of the second suspect, Nawaf bin Sharif Samir al-Enezi, who drove the car. The government said that the suspect was arrested at a farm in Huraimela district, to the north of Riyadh, where three cars were in the process of being converted into car bombs (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 25). The government said that the police were continuing to search for the rest of the group, and added that the group’s key contact with the Islamic State was a man with a Moroccan accent.
A few days later, on April 28, the government announced the recent arrest of a further 93 individuals suspected of terrorist activity. A number of the individuals were said to have formed a group called “Jund Bilad al-Haramain” (Soldiers of the Land of the Two Holy Places— i.e., Saudi Arabia), which they said was connected to the Islamic State (Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior, April 28). This group, which was previously unknown, is alleged by the government to have organized itself into cells, with roles assigned to individuals or sub-groups tasked with manufacturing explosives, issuing fatwa-s and managing the group’s finances. Further underlying the rapidly evolving threat, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior has also added a number of high-profile Saudi members of the Islamic State and affiliated groups to its most-wanted list. These include Anas bin Ali bin Abdul Aziz al-Nashwan, a hardline Wahhabi theologian, who appeared in a recent video by the Islamic State’s Libyan affiliate that showed the execution of 28 Christian Ethiopians. (Arab News, April 27; Militant Leadership Monitor, April). The ministry has said that, since 2011, an estimated 2,275 citizens had gone to Syria to join jihadist groups, 500 of whom are believed to have returned so far (al-Ahram [Cairo], April 16). Previously in April, the interior ministry had warned of a possible attack on a mall or on oil installations (Arab News, April 21).
The latest arrests underline that Saudi Arabia faces significant long-term challenges from those inspired by the Islamic State’s ideology and also from individuals directly connected to the group and acting on its orders. Indeed, the police report of car bombs being constructed suggests that Saudi militants, confined in recent years to one-off shootings, may now be seeking to carry out more ambitious attacks. In addition, the apparent emergence of the alleged “Jund Bilad al-Haramain” group suggests surprisingly high levels of organization by Saudi-based militants, which is again suggestive of domestic militants’ increasing ambitions. However, while the possibility of further jihadist attacks in the country are very real, the Saudi religious establishment—unlike in the 1990s and early 2000s—remains firmly behind the monarchy, and the domestic security services are far more capable and sophisticated than before. In addition—largely as a result of constant government propaganda through the media and religious institutions—there is a far better understanding in Saudi society of the dangers that unrestrained, non-governmental takfirism can pose to the country’s stability. At the same time, however, as the latest arrests indicate, both Saudi Arabia itself, and various Western-linked targets within the country, are likely to remain attractive targets for jihadists for the foreseeable future.
Al-Qaeda in the Italian Peninsula: Arrests Expose Militant Links
Italian police on April 24 arrested nine people (eight Pakistanis and one Afghan) on suspicion of involvement in terrorism, and are continuing to search for nine others (La Repubblica, April 24). Three of the suspects were arrested in Olbia, on the island of Sardinia, and the others on the Italian mainland. The individuals are accused of having links to Pakistan-based militant groups, including al-Qaeda, and are charged with being part of “an organization dedicated to transnational criminal activity, which was inspired by al-Qaeda and other radical formations,” and of planning an “insurgency against the current government in Pakistan” (La Nuova Sardegna, April 24). The arrests are a reminder that although no Islamist attacks have taken place in Italy in the modern era, the country remains a significant base for small Islamist militant groupings, just as it was in the pre-9/11 era when a variety of Islamist militants were based in and around Milan.
According to the police, the detained leader of the network was Hafiz Muhammad Zulkifal, an imam in Zingonia, a deprived urban area in northern Italy (Corriere Della Sera, April 26). Zulkifal, who had lived in Italy for eight years, is accused of collecting and sending money to Pakistan Sunni Islamist militant groups, which then used this to fund attacks in Pakistan (Corriere Della Sera, April 24). Meanwhile, the apparent leader of the group in Sardina, where most of the arrests occurred, was Sultan Wali Khan, the imam and figurehead of the Pakistani community in Olbia, who is also a local businessman active in the construction industry (La Repubblica, April 24; L’Union Sarde, April 25). Compared to other European countries, such as France or the UK, the profile of these radicals is unusual; they are relatively older individuals, who in some cases administer mosques and were outwardly respectable “community leaders,” rather than younger radicals operating on the fringes of youth clubs, gyms and community centers who have been at the core of most other jihadist cells in other European countries. The individuals appear to have collected money from local Muslim communities using a front group called “Tabligh Ed-dawa” (Society for the Propagation [of Islam]) (L’Union Sarde, April 25).
Money channeled through this network is believed to have funded several prominent attacks in Pakistan, including bombing markets and the police in the city of Quetta in 2011 (AGI, April 24). Other attacks reportedly funded through the network include the October 2009 car bomb attack on the Mina Bazaar in Peshawar, which killed 130 people, one of the largest attacks such attacks in Pakistan. The Taliban at the time were widely accused of the attack, although the group—and specifically the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—denied involvement (The Nation [Lahore], October 29, 2009). The Italian authorities said the “Tabligh Ed-dawa” group generally transferred money without going through formal banking networks. For instance, one consignment of 55,268 euros ($60,160) was reportedly transported in cash on a flight to Pakistan by passenger, while other funds being were transferred through the hawala informal money transfer system (The Nation [Lahore], April 25). The group is also believed to have briefly discussed targeting the Vatican, although information released so far by the police suggests that no concrete plans were made.
The arrests underline that while Italian Muslim communities have proportionately produced a far small number of jihadists than countries like Belgium, France and the UK, the group does harbor small radical groupings. For instance, around 50 Italian citizens are also reported to have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Corriere Della Sera, August 25, 2014). The first to die, Giuliano Ibrahim Delnevo, a 23-year-old convert to Islam from Genoa, was killed in Syria in 2013 while fighting against the Assad government, although the exact cause of his death has never been established (Il Giornale, June 18, 2013). Small numbers of people have also been arrested over suspected links to the Islamic State. For instance, two individuals—a Moroccan and Albanian—were arrested in northern Italy in March on suspicion of recruiting fighters for the Islamic State (La Stampa, March 25). Despite such developments, however, periodic threats against the country by Islamist militants are treated with some levity, perhaps because of the lack of attacks in Italy. For instance, after one Islamic State militant warned on Twitter that the group would be “coming to Rome,” Italian Twitter-users used the hashtag #We_Are_Coming_O_Rome to offer shopping tips, restaurant recommendations and to warn that, due to an upcoming transport strike in the Eternal City, he would be unlikely to reach his destination on schedule.  Despite such good-humor, however, the reality is that further arrests of Islamist militants, and potentially also attempted attacks, are likely in Italy in the coming months.
1. The tweets using this hashtag can be found at https://twitter.com/hashtag/We_Are_Coming_O_Rome.